Monday, 17 October 2016

Colouring Molly & Mae

This post, the first for the year 2016 (and it's October!) concerns a book I illustrated that has just come out, called Molly & Mae. It is written by the extraordinary Danny Parker.

Molly & Mae is the story of friendship told like a train journey. It is utterly unique, poetic and really appealed to me. The story is broken into little moments, and has headings throughout to represent different stages of a train journey: platform, timetable, journey, signal failure, destination. And all of these relate to the stages of Molly and Mae's friendship. The blurb on the back of the book describes the book better than I can:

Friendship is like a train journey. 
There are happy moments, boring moments, and exciting moments. 
There is anger, and loneliness, and there is forgiveness 
and the thread of friendship runs through everything, 
like rail tracks through the countryside. 

I had longer than usual to complete this book and I suspect that because of this, I deliberated, and experimented, and queried and basically just made problems for myself.

Having chatted with my publisher about landscapes appearing in the illustrations, I decided to use oil paints. I assumed it would be fairly simple to paint a landscape just like those by Roland Wakelin or Roy De Maistre. Hmm. I also liked the idea of those excellent, expressive oil painted brushstrokes, which was also harder than I assumed!

Here is one of the early attempts to illustrate the friends, using really thin oil paints and pencil. For some reason I didn't go ahead with pencil linework like this, but looking back on it, I really like it.

Our characters, Molly and Mae, board a train together. Having found reference of some beautiful wooden train interiors, I felt determined to see the inside of the train as a burnt sienna. I wanted the interior to look warm and inviting and these initial colour tests seemed to work. I was feeling confident...

My plan was to cut out the foreground and insert a landscape behind the characters and train interior. So here it is with a different background out the window. I was still feeling confident...

But when I tried it on the final it didn't feel right:

I tried another page and it didn't feel any more right. I think I did five pages like this, and none of them felt right. 

In fact, when I looked at the works lined up in my studio it was like listening to music ever so slightly out of tune. It was grating! Finally, my dear publisher agreed that it wasn't working and I needed to start all over again.

The burnt sienna became a kind of mauve, which is weird because it would have to be one of my least favourite colours. But with the mauve, the characters and their little splashes of colour stood out.

Then I inserted backgrounds behind the train windows and suddenly the book felt like it might work. I began to feel the despair ebb.

I played with different coloured landscapes and eventually found a solution, but goodness, it was hard to find something that worked both for single illustrations and the full book. It's all a good learning experience, but sometimes I really wish I'd gone to art school and learnt how to do it all properly to start with!

Molly & Mae was designed by Vida Kelly (and she did a beautiful job as always) and is published by Little Hare Books. My mum had to explain a lot of colour theory, which may have gone in one ear and out the other.


  1. I love this Freya, thank you so much for sharing. It's fascinating to have a glimpse into the way you work & how the pictures/books are created. Also encouraging to learn that the process is very much a journey for even the most talented among us. ❤️

    1. Hello Lindsay!

      The process can be so long and arduous! You can never tell from artworks, can you? They look like they were always just like that, but in reality they were built from nothing. Hope you're well, Lindsay! Freya x

  2. Love this!! It's always so fascinating to listen / read about your process...looking forward to more blog posts! x

  3. I'm curious to know your inspiration for some of the scenes in the book. I'm fairly certain the skyline at the end is based on Edinburgh while the Glenfinnan Viaduct is possibly seen earlier in the book (at least inspired by?). However the train station interior at the end? Is this based on a real location too? Gorgeous book.


    1. Hi Ross,

      Yes, the skyline was based on Edinburgh. The train station was based on a station I found photos of, but sadly, I don't think it exists anymore. And really, I just pluck ideas and merge things together to suit what I have in my mind! Thanks for the message. Sorry it took me SO long to reply!

  4. The pictures are excellent are such a perfectionist. Can't forget "Perfect" inside cover dilemma.
    Best wishes,Lynne

  5. Your blog is awesome ! I love to read the story you tell about how you made and created your illustrations ! That's so interesting; thank you ! Hope one day you will do others posts on this blog; even if, I know, time is to instagram now ;)

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